A ‘radical reset’ and ‘re-imagining’ of Victoria’s youth justice system is required to address the state’s stark over-representation of Aboriginal children and young people, according to a new report.

The Victorian Commission for Children and Young People examined the cases of nearly 300 children in Victoria’s youth justice system and on Thursday handed down its report – Our youth, our way – with 41 findings and 75 recommendations that it said can be implemented within five years.

Together with the better coordination of all services working with children and young people, the report calls for measures to minimise police contact, strengthen legal support, create a presumption of diversion, improve bail, reduce the unnecessary use of remand, and shape a justice system that focuses on prevention and early intervention at every stage.

A central recommendation is that Victoria raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, in line with calls by national advocates and the recommendations of the United Nations.

Justin Mohamed is the state’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People and says the westernised model of youth justice has failed. 

“One of the things that Westernised law and order has not done in this country and many other countries with a history similar to Australia – it has not valued Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal law. It has tried to side-line it.

“The Westernised model has failed us, it continues to fail us. This is about re-imagining if Aboriginal law, if Aboriginal culture was at the heart and at the centre of it and the young person is then built from that space.”

“All the different parts of that: connection to land, connection to family, being able to express themselves, being able to have a place they can go to where they can re-centre themselves. All these components are a very different sort of justice model to what we see now which is predominantly police, court and, unfortunately for a number of our young people, spending time behind bars.”

Images: Our youth, our way report.

Commissioner Mohamed sat down with Aboriginal youth groups to hear their stories during the inquiry and says many of the issues he heard were being voiced when he first started his career 30 years ago.

“It gives me goosebumps just talking about it. It’s very sad.”

“30 years, my role that I had back then came out of part of the recommendations from the commission into deaths in custody and what we hear today is some of those things are still relevant and still being experienced by young people within the system.”

“I walked away from some of those [youth group meetings] thinking ‘well what do we have to do?'”

“That started triggering me to say: we can’t just improve the system, we’ve got to dismantle it and rebuild a new system with new boundaries and new values.”

On an average day in 2018-19 in Victoria 953 young people aged ten and over were under youth justice supervision and Indigenous young people were 11 times more likely as non-Indigenous young people to be under supervision.